Tag: Imperial History

How Did Water Connect the World? An Interview with David Igler on Pacific and Environmental History

The Pacific is an area largely understudied by historians, yet it is “an ocean covering more than a third of the Earth’s surface” and has “over 25,000 islands”, to borrow the words of the late Australian historian Greg Dening.  In the past thirty years or so, a growing number of historians have shifted their attention to the Pacific.  This includes such well-known scholars as Greg Dening, Anne Salmond, Gregory T. Cushman and Toynbee Prize Foundation Trustee David Armitage.

Our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Professor David Igler, numbers among the dozens of scholars who believe that the importance of Pacific Ocean and significance of environmental history.  David Bruce Igler is a historian of the American West , President of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, and Professor of History and currently Chair of History Department at the University of California, Irvine.

Professor Igler, a graduate of UC Berkeley, began his academic career as a U.S. historian specializing in the American West and environmental history.  After publishing his book Industrial Cowboys: Miller and Lux and the Transformation of the Far West, 1850-1920, he decided to explore the waterscape and regions west of the West, namely, the Pacific Ocean.  This research has consumed him for the past decade.  The product is, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

The prize-winning monograph draws on hundreds of documented voyages, some painstakingly recorded by participants, some only known by their archeological remains or indigenous memory.  This leads to a window into the commercial, cultural, and ecological upheavals following the initial contact period, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.   Do industrial development and environmental transformation often happened in the same time?  What makes Professor Igler shift from American history to Pacific history?   Can humans have a dialogue with the Ocean? Professor Igler and Tiger Li, Editor-at-Large for the Toynbee Prize Foundation, discuss these questions in the following interview.

Professor David Igler, professor of history at UC Irvine and author of "The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush."

Professor David Igler, professor of history at UC Irvine and author of “The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush.”

Guarding Empire, Mandating Statehood: A Conversation with Susan Pedersen on the League of Nations, Internationalism, and the End of Empire

Travel to the shores of Lake Geneva, disembark from your ferry or catamaran onto the narrow streets of bourgeois Geneva, and take one of the Swiss city’s speedy trams up the hill to your north, and you won’t be able to miss it: there, at the end of one of the tram lines, sits the massive compound of the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG), housed in the majestic Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations), one of the largest buildings in Europe. Fluttering in front of it (next to the gate for UN employees passing into the complex) are the 193 flags of all members of the United Nations, from founding members like the United States, Great Britain, or France, to newer member-states like South Sudan or Kosovo–all flying at equal heights and equally spaced out along four grand rows.

And yet this current arrangement of things in Geneva–and international order writ large–is quite new. The Palais des Nations, today home to meetings for UN organizations, was originally built as the headquarters for the now-defunct League of Nations, the interwar system of international governance that today (where it is remembered) is probably most associated with failing to keep the peace of Versailles and not having the United States of America as a member. Had one flown the flags of the nation-states of the day in front of the Palais following its opening, however, the number of flags would have been much, much smaller, with Africa and Asia barely represented. And as the maps that hang in the elegant Reading Room of the League’s Archives (themselves in a wing of the Palais) remind us, most of the world’s population then who was not Chinese lived not in nation-states, but in empires–in the British and French Empires, to be specific.

During our brief stroll around Geneva and the Palais des Nations, in short, we find traces of two very different international systems of statehood–empires and nation-states–that nonetheless intersect at this particular piece of very pricey real estate above the waves of Lake Geneva. But how could one tell this story in a more specific way? What was the processual glue between the world of empires that the League of Nations belonged to, and the world of normative statehood, political decolonization, and nation-states that we inhabit today? More than that, to what extent was the League of Nations not only captive to, or affected by these shifts in international order, but actually facilitative of those shifts themselves?

The cover of Susan Pedersen's new book, "The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire"

The cover of Susan Pedersen’s new book, “The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire”

These are just some of the questions treated in Susan Pedersen‘s recent book, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). In it, Pedersen, the James B. Shenton Professor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University, explores the history of the League of Nation’s Permanent Mandates Commission, the body assigned to oversee and monitor territories from Burundi to Baghdad and from Tanganyika to Togo.

While most readers’ perceptions of the League of Nations may still center around the presumptive “failure” of that international organization to prevent war in Europe, Pedersen takes a different tack in The Guardians, focusing on the League of Nations mandates system and its effects on international order during the interwar period. As she shows, following the First World War, new international norms of Wilsonian self-determination–and the Bolsheviks’ critique of capitalist war–made it difficult for the victorious British and French Empires simply to swallow territories like ex-Ottoman Iraq, Syria or Palestine, or ex-German territories in Africa or Oceania. Given “the strenuous conditions of the modern world,” as Article 22 of the League of Nations’ Covenant explained, less developed peoples needed tutelage from the more advanced European powers. Captured German or Ottoman territories would have to be governed according to international and humanitarian norms: managed by the powers that were occupying them at the end of the War, but subject to international oversight in the form of a Permanent Mandates Commission in Geneva (itself staffed mostly by white men from imperialist powers).Mandated territories could be treated as provisionally independent nations (Class A–the Middle Eastern territories), in need of more tutelage but not to be administered as part of the Mandating Powers’ colonial territories (Class B–German Africa, other than South West Africa), and territories “best administered under the laws of the Mandatory as integral portions of its territory” (Class C–South West Africa, plus postcolonial Oceania).

Yet the question of what, exactly the difference was between a mandated territory and a colony would haunt the system throughout the interwar period. If the Mandates were explicitly something other than colonies, when, exactly, would they be ready for independent statehood, or at the very least open to international competition for goods and services? As the British and French violently suppressed revolts in the Middle East, and the South Africans treated South West Africa more or less like a colony, the legitimacy of the system grew shakier. And when Germany was admitted into the League of Nations in 1926, Berlin joined a chorus of protestors and petitioners from around the world who claimed self-government as preferable to trusteeship. In some cases, like that of Iraq, the Mandating Powers found that the “internationalization” of their administration of these post-colonial territories so burdensome that declaring them fit for statehood (as happened to Iraq in 1932) and “merely” contenting oneself with economic and military hegemony over a pliant client state was preferable to facing nagging charges in Geneva.

Decolonization avant la lettre it was not: the French and British Empires remained in control of their colonial holdings, and the entrance of states like Iraq into the League of Nations on British terms was an affair quite different from the mass entry of former British and French colonies into the UN’s General Assembly decades later. But the mandates system–designed as an alternative to cutthroat imperialistic competition and expansion–had ironically opened up new concepts of normative statehood that would take on a life of their own. A system originally designed to help colonial empire collaborate over the spoils of war became the site of new kinds of claims for government after empire. Replete with both conservative defenders of norms of civilization and tutelage, like Frederick Lugard, and the thousands of petitioners from Samoa to Palestine who sought to claim some version of self-government for themselves, The Guardians presents not only a rich tableau of the new kinds of international actors that sprung up during the interwar years; more than that, it uncovers a hitherto-hidden story of the battle over international norms about sovereignty and statehood that continue, from South Sudan to Kosovo to Ukraine, to play a fundamental role in international politics today.

The Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Executive Director, Timothy Nunan, was fortunate to have the chance to sit down with Professor Pedersen during a very hot summer day in Berlin and to discuss her path to writing The Guardians, some of the key findings of her work, and her intellectual plans for the near future.

Lecturer Position in Imperial or Global History (University of Exeter)

Our colleagues at the University of Exeter – incidentally home to an excellent blog on imperial and global history – have recently announced a search for a full-time, permanent position as a Lecturer in Imperial or Global History. According to the job advertisement, The successful applicant will hold a PhD (or will have submitted and be awaiting…

Unweaving Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton: A Global History”

Pause for a moment while reading this review and check out the inside collar of your shirt or blouse. There’s a good chance that the garment you’re wearing is not only made out of cotton but was made in a country other than the one you’re living in: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Guatemala, or somewhere else with appropriately low wages. Cotton, in short, is so much a part of our daily lives that its ubiquity as an industrial good and its central role in global trade are invisible. In an age of smart phones and Dreamliners, it’s easy to forget how humble cotton remains one of the most valuable and widely traded goods on the planet.

It’s easy, too, to forget that this plant has a history that is in large part the history of global capitalism–easy, that is, until the recent publication of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, published in late 2014 by Random House. Beckert, originally from Germany and the co-director of Harvard University’s Weatherhead Initiative on Global History, was already well-known to many American colleagues as a historian of capitalism. His 2001 The Monied Metropolis was a key early work in a generation of scholarship that has transformed a subfield formerly thought of as dusty, if not dead, into one of historical academe’s growth areas. Indeed, Beckert was an early champion of the field at Harvard, founding a Program on the subject there, and has helped shaped many a dissertation project–Louis Hyman on debt in modern America, Vanessa Ogle on time synchronization, Ian Klaus on trust and capitalism–in a burgeoning literature. But with Empire of Cotton, Beckert takes an approach that is still often focused on Anglophone, if not just American capitalism, and seeks to apply it to one of the greatest global goods of all time.

Harvard Historian Sven Beckert, author of “Empire of Cotton: A Global History”

Immigrants, Railroads, America, Germany: An Interview with Julío Robert Decker

People often ask scholars of history what, exactly, the discipline constitutes–what its unique methodologies are, what precisely its subject of study is, and what contemporary questions it offers to clarify. As our recent Global History Forum interviews have shown, one of the joys of the field is that it rejects the reassuring but often illusory national containers of traditional historiography, and that, precisely by doing so, it can help us, a twenty-first century readership, understand problems that exceed the boundaries of the nation.

Look through the headlines today, or follow the reception of recent works in the field, and potential points of intervention and debates already launched are everywhere. In the United States, for example, President Barack Obama’s November decision to grant “deportation relief” to millions of illegal immigrants has revived a heated debate about American identity and obligation. From all across the political spectrum, commentators and activists put forward arguments about the role race does, does not, should, or should not play in American identity. The argument that many illegal immigrants have entered the country unfairly while tens of thousands of more “deserving” non-Latin American immigrants wait in line raises all sorts of questions about the shifting moral sentiments towards Latinos, Asians, and Europeans as “good” and “bad” future Americans. Even the counter-use of the the term “undocumented immigrant” as a term opposed to the more judgmental “illegal immigrant” reminds us of the entire regime of documentation that accompanies the immigration process in America today.

Julio Robert Decker, feature of our latest Interview with Global Historians

Julio Robert Decker, feature of our latest Interview with Global Historians

As global history at its best–and our guest to this edition of Global History Forum–reminds us, however, debates like these have a long history. More than that, debates like these are also inevitably entangled in networks of ideas that go beyond the nation-state itself. In his work to date, historian Robert Julio Decker, a scholar at the Technical University in Darmstadt, has explored the history of immigration regimes, while his future work promises to contribute the exploding literature on the history of capitalism. Speaking with him earlier this year during his tenure as a fellow at Harvard University, we discuss his path to global history, his early work, and his ongoing research on the global history of capitalism in the United States and the German Empire.